Commercial Street, Lerwick on a busy summer day.
A beginners guide to Shetland
You’ve read the travel guide? Great. You’ve seen the Shetland TV series, even better; now read a real guide from a local. Delve a little deeper into the fascinating culture of the place I call home: Shetland.
Our island’s culture and tradition is unique and distinctively ‘not Scottish’ – if that’s a thing? We’ve only been part of Scotland for 550 years so don’t expect to find any haggis, kilts or bagpipes here.
So, for those arriving here for the first time, I’ve compiled this little Survival Guide – a beginner's guide to Shetland, if you will. It’s by no means comprehensive and should be taken a little tongue-in-cheek, but here you go:
First things first, welcome to Shetland – hiyi, noo den, whit lik’, or whatever – you’ll find a few variants of this common greeting. We’re a friendly bunch, and you’ll find that people will be only too happy to help you while you’re here, so please, don’t be afraid to ask locals for directions, tips or any other little thing which might spring to mind.
If it’s your first time to Shetland then pop into the Tourist Centre and meet the staff – a more helpful team you couldn’t ask for. You’re sure to leave feeling inspired and bursting with ideas for your holidays.
Lerwick Tourist Centre where a friendly welcome awaits.
*note* WE DRIVE ON THE LEFT SIDE OF THE ROAD.
With introductions over, it’s likely that one of the first things you’ll do as a visitor to our islands, is rent a car (several car rental companies are available, such as this one, this one and this one).
You will then find yourself on one of our minor, single-track roads with passing places. We have rules for these, which are unwritten, but strictly observed by islanders. Below is your handy guide to Passing Place Etiquette:
A Shetland passing place, many people visiting ask what "passing place" means on the road signs.
Using one of Shetland's passing places in Fetlar.
A few notes, or additional points to consider when driving in Shetland:
Be aware of vehicles displaying car hire logos. They may, or will almost certainly be unsure of where they’re going, or how to navigate the roads. We expect this from self-drives. Remember that for many, they’re driving on the opposite side of the road to what they’re accustomed to. This is as much a reminder to locals (and myself) as anyone else because it can be frustrating when rushing to get somewhere only to come up behind a car going at 35 mph on a 60 stretch.
Be aware that unless specified, you’re probably going to end up with a manual car if you rent one, and one that has about as much power under the bonnet to get up the hills as my hairdryer. That said, Shetland’s car hire companies are very good, and the vehicles are usually reasonably new.
Cyclists are a problem here too. I joke (kinda). Please just be aware that we have a lot of cyclists on the roads and there are no dedicated cycle paths, other than a few around town and one leading into the village of Hoswick. I wrote a blog about cycling in Shetland that you can read here.
I should also give you a little heads-up about roundabouts in Shetland, especially for our American visitors who have never encountered this quintessentially British intersection. Basically, on entering a roundabout, give priority to traffic approaching from your right. You will find these randomly situated throughout the isles, and lots of people living here are quite unaware of how to use them too (!). Be prepared for lengthy stand-offs – the roundabout stare-off – as people unblinkingly gaze from one car to the other, wondering who dares to go first. It can be quite fun (if you’re not in a hurry) and I like to treat it as if it were a competitive sport – always disappointed when someone has the guts to enter the roundabout before me. Basically, this system to ‘keep traffic flowing’, more often than not brings traffic to an absolute standstill.
But don’t worry, traffic hold-ups in Shetland are short-lived and infrequent and if you’re still unsure about navigating a roundabout check out this advice from the Highway Code.
If you want to understand a little more about how to use passing places and general ‘Shetlandy stuff’ check out this helpful YouTube video.
So that's the roads covered.
Who lets a little rain stop them anyway? A rainy day in Yell. Welcome to Shetland summer.
Small talk & weather
Despite a surge in tourism in recent years, visitors can still come here and catch a glimpse of the islands distinct culture. Shetland remains true to its roots in many areas – despite the fact we all have iPhones, instant messenger and wifi.
I’m listing small-talk and weather together here because they seem to come as a package. All small-talk begins with the weather, and the weather is the first thing that we ever talk about. We have weather here in abundance, and it can change in a millisecond – providing us with endless opportunities for small-talk.
If you meet a local, be prepared to be given a run-down on the weather (especially if you meet my mother-in-law), it’s how we start most conversations here.
‘Fine day, daday’ – It’s a good day, today.
‘It’s a day o’ dirt’ – It’s a horrible day today.
‘It’s steekit’ mist’ – It’s extremely foggy.
‘A laar o’ wind’ or ‘a scaar o’ wind’ – Not much wind, or, a little more wind...
‘It’s a day o’ shite’ – I’ll let you figure that one out for yourselves.
And one of the nicest things you can hope for is ‘a day atween wadders’ – a calm day between storms when the birds come out singing, and everyone appears outdoors after being stuck in! (As I write, we’ve enjoyed a ‘day atween wadders’, and I’m writing on the rainy end of it).
On a serious note:
Be prepared for four seasons in one day. And, be prepared for the wind chill – It’s a real thing here despite our temperate Oceanic climate. It will surprise you – it still surprises me!
So, pack wisely and layer up.
I wrote a blog about what to wear in Shetland that can be found here.
What not to say to a Shetlander:
Never say that you are ‘on Shetland’, or ‘on Unst’ for example – us Shetlanders can’t abide it (even if it is grammatically correct). Just bear in mind that when visiting; you are ‘in Shetland’ or you are ‘in Unst’, never on.
Another never never is – the Shetlands. We’re not the Shetlands; we are just Shetland. Period. Call us the Shetland Isles, or an island archipelago, or da auld rock, or da rock – whatever, just don’t call us the Shetlands. This is a sure-fire way of getting off on the wrong foot, or most usually, corrected.
Although, as mentioned, Shetlanders are a friendly bunch and will probably helpfully correct you with a smile of knowing sympathy at your error.
Fair Isle knitwear is the national dress in Shetland; not tartan.
Don’t ask what our tartan is; a real Shetlander doesn’t have a tartan – our roots are very much Scandinavian (if you want to know more about our ‘non-Scottish’ culture you can read my blog post here).
You will perhaps want to buy some of our locally made Fair Isle knitwear, and this can be picked up all over the isles from larger shops on Commercial Street to small community museum shops.
Knitwear has always been important to our economy – much more than tartan ever has. But that’s for another day.
One of the Shetland fishing fleet; supplying fresh local fish to market.
Food & Drink
Again, this is another blog post, but for now:
Hello, and welcome to my blog. I hope that you find what you're looking for, whether you are planning that perfect holiday or maybe you're from Shetland and looking for some inspiration. Hopefully, there is something here for everyone.